Ghostwatch: very funny hoax documentary that blurs reality and fiction, and raises issues about authenticity

Lesley Manning, “Ghostwatch” (1992)

Subject of a post on Adam Curtis’s BBC blog, this BBC hoax drama is quite a laugh to watch. Hard to believe that many adults were convinced this show was for real when it first broadcast in the UK in 1992; it’s understandable that children and teenagers would be taken in as the film looks fairly realistic overall and young people would not pick up the stagey quality of the production, evident in early small-crowd scenes around a house which have the look of something deliberately set up.

The show is in the form of a reality TV show of the same name as the hoax itself and features real-life TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene as respectively host of and reporter for the TV show. Greene leads a team of BBC reporters investigating suspect poltergeist activity at a London house – the investigation is shown live. Through the team’s investigations and interviews with the woman and her two daughters living in the house and with neighbours, viewers discover that the spirit menacing the family belongs to a disturbed man who himself is spooked by another spirit of a woman who once took in babies for wet-nursing and killed them.

The presentation and narrative are cleverly done in spite of the limited budget – the show includes a team of people receiving phone calls from viewers reporting sightings of the poltergeist in film clips of the children’s bedroom. Parkinson maintains a sceptical stand with regard to the paranormal occurrences while paranormal expert Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) plays the credulous paranormal researcher in the manner of The X-Files characters Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. Filming techniques using jerky hand-held cameras give the film an immediate newsreel feel. Current technology of the period including a thermographic camera and secret cameras, and motion and temperature sensors are emphasised throughout the film, making it look even morre realistic and impressive. (Which in itself says something about people’s faith in cutting-edge technology.) The sets look real if camp with Halloween slapstick decorations like a tarantula on one wall and ghost magnets on the kitchen cabinets. An American psychologist is consulted for his opinion on the ghost activity. At a critical point in the film, one of the children is exposed as generating some of the poltergeist activity which adds an interesting slant and a new tension to the film. The poltergeist decides to bring proceedings to a predictably hokey end by advancing all the way to the BBC studio where the reality TV show is being filmed and broadcast live.

The film touches on interesting issues such as puberty and neuroses affecting young teenage girls, children as innocent (or maybe not-so-innocent) channels for the supernatural, the struggle between belief and scepticism and the consequences of both, the effect of publicity and obsessive national attention on the girls who start playing up to the BBC cameras, and the deliberate blurring of reality and fantasy as the cheeky spirit finds a conduit through the BBC’s technology and travels to the very studio where Parkinson and the doctor are sitting; too late the good doctor realises that the entire show itself has been hijacked by the poltergeist who proceeds to trash the studio. This in itself brings up questions about the role of technology as a portal between the real world and the fantasy world which in earlier times was played by shamans, religious rituals or ouija boards played by Victorian-era party-goers high on mild ether: now folks can sit back passively and allow modern electronics gadgets to bring the spirit world to them. (The only problem is the gadgets and the spirits connive to hassle the owners in their own sweet time, not that of the humans!)

I thought the film lost its nerve by descending into conventional horror-film theatrics: lights blow out overhead in the “Ghostwatch” studio, a piece of filming equipment turns Dalek-feral and Parkinson doesn’t know what to do even after most of the cast has fled the studio. His dazed and mumbling presence which becomes pathetically infantile holds the final scenes together. On another level though I can see the conclusion is appropriate: believers in poltergeists and the worldview they represented are “raptured” into the spirit world (where they don’t find any comfort) – it’s interesting that Dr Pascoe is nowhere to be seen in the studio after the poltergeist whirlwind hits it – and sceptics like Parkinson are left on the material plane trying to make sense of the sudden chaos that’s hit them and just as quickly left them in a material void. The spirit invasion leaves believers in the rational teetering on the edge of insanity.

Acting was quite credible although the girls might have overplayed their parts (inevitable, since they would have had a lot of fun and encouragement from the BBC crew). Some scenes in the film look like tongue-in-cheek references to famous movies like The Exoricist (one girl lying catatonic on her bed with scratch marks over her body) and possibly Fatal Attraction (scene where Greene fishes out a drowned toy bunny from the kitchen sink). Parkinson and Bevan are credible as the voices of scepticism and incredulous belief generally and the growing tension between them and their attitudes and belief systems. Sarah Greene and Chris Charles as the on-site reporters hold up their end fairly well though Charles mugs a lot for the camera, perhaps because if he didn’t he’d be laughing the whole way through and that would have blown “Ghostwatch” for the fiction it is. The camera crew, reminiscent of the film-makers following the serial killer in the hilarious Belgian mockumentary “Man Bites Dog”, stoically follow Greene all the way to their (presumably grisly) demise. Hope the guys haven’t left behind any pregnant girlfriends called Marie-Paule to grieve over their loss.

Overall this BBC production is a gentle and funny satirical mockumentary on the modern narrative construct of the paranormal (haunted suburban house / children and prepubescent girls in particular as conduits for supernatural activity / the conflict between belief and non-belief) and perhaps this in itself gives the program considerable power, more than its makers had anticipated or the program itself deserves. The overwhelming response that “Ghostwatch” received, reminiscent of the panic that followed Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds”, delivered as a series of news bulletins and itself a throwback to Ronald Knox’s BBC radio news hoax “Broadcasting from the Barricades” in 1926 which also generated panic, suggests as much. Seems that people and the BBC especially have short memories about causing mass hysteria by presenting programs that have the look, feel and structures of “genuine” news, and this in itself raises questions about how much people might rely on the format of news rather than the news itself to judge if a particular news report is authentic.



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